Well, he’s at it again, and everyone’s talking about it. Last night after our Anima Education class in Ballarat, one student came up to me to express her distress over an article she had read from the New York Times which reported that Pope Francis had said we mustn’t talk about abortion, homosexuality, divorce or same sex marriage any more.
I had heard on Vatican Radio that the Holy Father had been giving interviews again, so I thought, hullo, what’s the old boy said now? However, it is very easy, via the old game of Chinese Whispers (especially where media reports are one of the intermediate whispers) to put the wrong twist on things, so after retiring to my room I went to source. Thankfully, my friend Andrew Rabel had already emailed me the link to the full interview in the Jesuit’s America Magazine, so I didn’t have to search very far.
It is a very LONG interview, and written up with comments and descriptions on the side. As far as I can see, the NYT didn’t misquote the Pope on anything he said, but given the length of the interview, it is possible that by quoting just snippets (which is all the America Magazine will allow – they state categorically that the interview is copyright to them – I don’t know what that will mean for future collectors of the Pope’s magisterium!) to get a slightly wrong impression.
I can heartily recommend the reading of it all today, on the Feast of St Matthew, as the Holy Father makes a particular point of the reason he chose his papal motto “Miserando atque Eligendo“. Apparently he was inpsired by the painting of the calling of St Matthew by Carravagio. (The origin of the papal motto is, of course, the commentary of St Bede, but I have just come back from mass, and note that the collect for today also highlights the mercy of Jesus in choosing St Matthew).
By now, we all know that “mercy” is a central theme in this pontificate. The pope wants us absolutely to get what Jesus meant when he said in today’s Gospel “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. To paraphrase Francis himself “I want the Church to show mercy, not to talk about all these hotbutton issues all the time”. In the case of both Jesus and Pope Francis, commentators would get them completely wrong if thjey reported “Jesus says no more sacrifices” or “Pope says sin no longer the concern of the Church”. It is rather that the fundamental message, the message that has priority over all else, is the Mercy of God. Be merciful, and offer your sacrifices. Be merciful, and uphold the moral teaching of the Church. But above all, always, first: Be merciful. Why? Because your Heavenly Father is merciful, and its what he wants you to be.
That’s basically what Francis says in the interview. But let’s look at the interview itself. The section relevant to the dear lady’s distress, is that headed “The Church as Field Hospital”. Now there has always been a saying that the Church is a “Hospital for Sinners, not a Country Club for Saints”, and perhaps that is what the Pope was thinking about. He says:
I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
What a vivid image. I could imagine myself as that person – perhaps hit by a car while crossing the street – finding myself in hospital where the doctor declares that they are not going to treat me becausee I am a smoker, and the hospital policy is anti-smoking.
Anyway, the Pope goes on to say that “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” I believe here that he is talking about what I am going to call “the priority of the kerygma” in the life of the Church. Let me suggest this: The Catholic Church has realised very well the centrality of the Eucharist in its life – since Vatican II we have learned to know the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Church. Yet it is equally true for us to grasp that the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery – what the New Testament and Biblical Scholars call “the kerygma” is the heart of the Church’s message. We will not get very far with the “New Evangelisation” or the “Evangelisation of Culture” without it.
What is that kerygma exactly then? St Luke’s version of St Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 gets the nuts and bolts clear:
22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know-23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. …32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. …36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ.
The Kerygma is at the heart of the Gospel. In fact, in so far as the Gospel is the announcement of the drawing near of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15), the Kerygma is the Gospel. If we do not preach it, we do not preach the Gospel. Or, as Pope Francis puts it:
A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing… The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ
Curiously, this was the message of Archbishop Porteous in a very recent podcast of Q&A with Archbishop Porteous “What is the Core Message of Christianity?”. There he comments that if you asked most Catholics what the “core message” of the Church is, they would probably answer “Believe in God and try to lead a good life”. That’s important, he said, but it isn’t our core message. Our core message is the apostolic Kerygma: that Jesus died, rose again, and now lives as our Lord and Saviour. Of course, that raises the question “What does he save us from?”, which is a terrifically good question. The obvious answer is “sin”, and I must say I was a little disappointed that Archbishop Porteous went directly for the obvious answer, because it would be so good to explore what ways people today are actually feeling trapped, enslaved, exploited, hopeless etc. and how and in what way the Lordship and Saving Mission of Jesus answers those longings.
Nevertheless, the point is clear, both in Pope Francis’ interview and in Archbishop Porteous’ Q&A: the Church has to get back to the core message. It isn’t that we have failed to proclaim the Gospel, rather it is that we have created too much background noise that drowns out our “core message”. Nor is it that we abandon the fullness of the message of the Church – rather that make sure that it can be heard against the background of the “core message” of the saving mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
I began writing this post this morning after morning mass. It is now evening and I am preparing to go out for dinner. But I wanted to add that I chose to digress during our sessions on “The Last Things” this morning in class to present this section of Pope Francis’ interview and to go through the issues with the class. It was a valuable experience. At morning tea, someone asked me, “What about the spiritual acts of mercy, such as admonishing the sinner? Don’t we still have to do that?” It was a good question, and given that there was a Compendium to the Catechism at hand, we looked up the list of Spiritual Acts of Mercy in the back of the book. Indeed “Admonish the sinner” is one of the spiritual acts of mercy (in other words, it is not necessarily merciful to fail to warn the sinner when they are heading into dangerous waters), but the very next spiritual act of mercy on the list is “comfort the afflicted”. That’s interesting, isn’t it, I said. How do we know, when some brash atheistic, secularist, church-hating sinner comes hurling accusations of homophobia at us, that we are not dealing with someone who has been deeply wounded and afflicted in some way (perhaps by the Church herself), and who doesn’t need our “merciful” admonition so much as our comfort and care?
We are back to the field hospital again, aren’t we? When I am hit by a car, I hope the doctors will deal with me mercifully even though I am a pipe smoking heretic. When I find someone who has been wounded in anyway, God help me to be a “comforter of the afflicted”, and to stay “on message” with the Kerygma.